August 31, 2013

Three Encounters with the late Seamus Heaney

After the American Century                                                                                                                                                          

I heard Seamus Heaney three times over three decades. In each case, we briefly spoke afterwards. The first was in about 1972, when he came to the University of Minnesota to give a well-attended reading. He was in his early thirties and had recently become a poet full-time. He seemed modest and a little amazed at his reception on the American poetry reading circuit. I was a graduate student then, not so much younger than he, and we spoke only briefly in a relaxed moment at the reception afterwards. It was already clear then that he had a marvelous ear and a remarkable facility. 

Young Seamus Heaney

The second encounter was about six years later, at a college in upstate New York, where I was teaching. By this time he was far more famous as a poet and more polished, really elegant, as a public speaker. He had also begun to lecture on famous predecessors. The one I heard compared Yeats and Eliot, focusing on how they described the process of writing poetry. The gist of it was that while Eliot seemed more academic and even added footnotes in some poems, he nevertheless seemed to experience the act of creation as a flow that was always temporary. These outpourings might be reworked, of course, but the initial surge of creativity was crucial. In contrast, Heaney argued, Yeats described writing poetry as hard work, like getting down on your marrow bones to scrub floors or like breaking stones. For him, evidently, writing was a craft and a struggle.

I recall this lecture not least because it showed how deeply Heaney was interested in two of the greatest poets of the first half of the twentieth century. In the talk he made no immodest comparisons between himself and either of the poets he was discussing. Nor on that occasion did he wish to be drawn out on his own methods of composition. My sense then was that his own experience of writing was more like Eliot's. This was later confirmed by something he said later in life: "The gift of writing is to be self-forgetful, to get a surge of inner life or inner supply or unexpected sense of empowerment, to be afloat, to be out of yourself." 

We spoke for a few minutes. I did not expect him to remember me, but he fondly recalled Chester Anderson, who had invited him to Minneapolis, and who was one of the leading scholars on James Joyce and modern Irish literature. (I could tell him that all was well with Professor Anderson, who had held the reception for Heaney where I first met him.)

The third and last time I heard him was in Copenhagen, when I was on the faculty at the university there. He was friends with one of my older colleagues, a man who had memorized thousands of lines of poetry. He has passed away since then, and he cannot present whatever might be his version of this story. Therefore I will not give his name.

I came early to the poetry reading, and ran into my older colleague and Heaney in a nook below stairs. They had an open wine bottle, and I was immediately pressed to take a plastic cup and help myself. I did so, and listened to their conversation, which was a mix of memories of various people and appropriate lines of poetry that they called to mind. It was not showing off in the least, but playful, occasionally a little competitive, and quite funny. But after twenty years I cannot recall the details.

As the time for the reading drew near, I went up the stairs to the hall, in order to get a decent seat. Heaney had not yet won the Nobel Prize, but it seemed obvious that he was a very plausible candidate. I was in time to secure a good spot and then waited. Eventually, Heaney arrived, alone. He  sat down and waited. The clock moved well beyond the appointed hour. As my colleague did not come, he finally went up to the podium, looked out at the crowd and said, "Well I suppose you all know who I am and that this is a poetry reading, so I may as well begin. No introduction is needed, surely."  He then began to read. After two or three poems, my colleague rushed in, a bit red in the face.

"Seamus. What are you doing? I have to give my introduction." The crowd tittered and had to restrain itself from laughing.

"Oh, sit down," Heaney said jovially, waving him toward a seat, "I am well started now."

"What about the introduction?"

"You can give it afterwards." Which is what he did. It was a bit incoherent (for the wine had taken full effect!) and totally unnecessary. But Seamus seemed to enjoy it all the more for that. When the "introduction" was over, they went off to dinner.

In all three of these encounters. I found Seamus Heaney to be an unpretentious, warm man. He was brilliant, of course, and far more able than most poets at presenting his work to readers. His passing is a loss to the literature of the world, and also (as sometimes is not the case) a great human loss. I wish I had heard him more often.

August 26, 2013

Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" Speech 50 Years later

After the American Century                                                                                                                                                           

To Black activists and college students in the middle 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. was not the iconic figure  who is being remembered this year, on the fiftieth anniversary of his famous "I have a Dream Speech." Delivered from the Lincoln Memorial in August, 1963, that speech was the rhetorical high point of the Civil Rights Movement. 

Martin Luther King delivering his "I Have a Dream" Speech

One only has to look at a photograph of King to begin to discern why he fell somewhat out of favor on university campuses between 1963 and 1968. King invariably wore a dark suit and had a short haircut. He dressed like a banker or a mainstream politician. By 1968 students had adopted a colorful wardrobe of loose-fitting clothing and long hair. Only a small, square minority had crew-cuts or short hair. That "look" declared one’s sympathy for the military. Dressing like Martin Luther King was just not cool.

King also made a point of presenting himself as a Christian. This was a good strategy in the American South in the late 1950s, as it challenged the minds and reached out to the hearts of his opponents. King challenged the core values and identity of Southern racists, who regarded themselves as quintessentially Christian. But on university campuses, emphasizing Christianity was more controversial and did not win support from Marxists, for example, or from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Indeed, in the late 1960s many Hippies were turning toward Eastern religions and non-Christian religions.

Martin Luther King was still respected for his early work in Civil Rights, but by the middle 1960s young Black students were distancing themselves from him. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had begun as an outgrowth of his civil disobedience campaign against segregation. But by 1967 SNCC had rejected non-violence, Black Power was the new slogan, and more confrontational tactics were being adopted.  Some even called King an Uncle Tom.

King’s goals were under attack. He called for assimilation. Black Power demanded separation; not integration into mainstream white society, but separate businesses, separate organizations of all kinds, and even separate Black states. The more radical white student leaders rejected the white middle class itself.  They did not think that African Americans would benefit from assimilation. The white middle class, they thought, was not the solution but the problem. Their values, radicals believed, were dangerous. They were imperialistic and violent. They subscribed to patriarchy, and keep down women, Blacks, Native Americans, and Third World peoples.  The new ideology of Black Power proclaimed that “Black is beautiful” and called for liberation from white society. The Black Muslims and Malcolm X had arrived at similar conclusions.

Stokley Carmichael and the more radical students wanted revolution not assimilation. From this perspective, King was part of the problem. They did not want "to overcome" with whites and join in a new color-blind society. They instead wanted Black communities that affirmed a distinctive Black culture and consciousness. They wanted to stop what they regarded as the white war on people of color, whether in the United States or in Vietnam.  Martin Luther King met with Lyndon Johnson at the White House, In contrast, Stokley Carmichael and SNCC refused to meet with him.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, student radicals were angry, but they also felt vindicated. They regarded the shooting as final proof of their own arguments. The assassination seemed to demonstrate that non-violence could never work. In 1968, a Revolution seemed necessary, and it seemed near.

Half a century later, it is painfully obvious that the radical students were wrong. The years after 1968 did not lead to revolution or even a liberal government. On the Left, Richard Nixon's election in 1968 was regarded as the last gasp of an old order that would soon be swept away. But between 1968 and 1992 Republicans would hold the presidency for all but 4 years. The United States proved far more conservative than student radicals thought. 

Looking back a half century to 1963, King has emerged as a towering figure, an effective organizer, a captivating public speaker, and a man able to mobilize and unite disparate groups to effect fundamental change. He has been canonized as the visionary who redefined what the American Dream might yet be. He appears great today, but he also illustrates all too well that a prophet often is not recognized in his own country. Only with the passage of time have Americans begun to understand his true stature.  

King still speaks to the world's problems today. The following words from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech apply with considerable force to all too many contemporary crises, particularly in the Middle East.

"Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers."

August 16, 2013

Tenth anniversary of the 2003 North American Blackout.

After the American Century                                                                                                                                                        


The tenth anniversary of the 2003 Blackout passed a few days ago. Fortunately, such a large blackout has not occurred again inside the US, but this is no reason to feel sanguine about electricity supply. The blackout in 2003 was a cascading failure that started in Ohio, tripped by an overhead line touching a tree limb. It was a hot day, which meant that demand for air conditioning was also high, and that caused the high tension lines to heat up. When this happens, they sag down. Power companies know this, and well-run companies make sure that the area below the lines is kept clear. But trees and bushes keep growing, and when not kept in check they soon rise closer to the lines. 

In short, the time of the accident was hardly a surprise. August is late in the growing season, when trees have had months to intrude upward. A hot day in August is hottest in the middle afternoon, and this is when the lines sagged down and touched the trees. The cascading effects knocked out power for 50 million people in Ontario, Canada and the eastern United States. The old adage, "For want of a nail, the horseshoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of a horse. . ." still applies.

Since 2003 the monitoring of the power system has improved, and power plant operators have a few seconds more to notice when a problem occurs. But remember that electricity moves at 186,000,000 miles per second. A breakdown in Ohio can cascade a long way in one second.



If you want to know more about this problem, including how blackouts relate to terrorism, the smart grid, and the future of energy use,  a New York Times article appeared in November the same year that this was posted, and I have also written a short book on the problem, When the Lights Went Out.